Dorothy Nelkin

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Dorothy Nelkin
Born(1933-07-30)July 30, 1933
DiedMay 28, 2003(2003-05-28) (aged 69)
Alma materCornell University
Known forRelationship between science and society
AwardsJohn Desmond Bernal Prize (1988)
Scientific career
InstitutionsCornell University
New York University

Dorothy Wolfers Nelkin ((1933-07-30)July 30, 1933 – (2003-05-28)May 28, 2003) was an American sociologist of science most noted for her work researching and chronicling the unsettled relationship between science and society at large.[1] Her work often drew attention to the ramifications of unchecked scientific advances and the unwariness of the public towards scientific authority. She was the author or co-author of 26 books, including Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, and Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age.[1] She was a supporter (and listed as a member of the Advisory Council, as of 2013[2]) of the National Center for Science Education, and in 1981 testified for the plaintiffs in McLean v. Arkansas. She had a broad impact in science studies, the history of science, bioethics and in the public assessment of science and technology. She was one of the founding members of the Society for the Social Studies of Science and served on governmental and other advisory boards. She often addressed the legal community, political leaders and the general public.

Life and career[edit]

Nelkin was born on July 30, 1933, in Boston. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of Henry L. Wolfers, who founded and ran the Wolfers Lighting Company in Boston. She was the first member of her family to attend college.

Coming of age as a scholar in the 1960s, Nelkin was part of that generation of female scholars who saw dramatic changes in the prevailing practices of American academe. She was a faculty wife, married to the physicist Mark S Nelkin. Like many other female scholars then and now the course of her career was shaped by motherhood. She stayed home for almost a decade. She never earned any graduate degree. She rose through the academic hierarchy with a 1954 BA from the Department of Philosophy at Cornell University, and no other formal credentials. Her early book jacket covers identify her as “Mrs. Nelkin.” By the early 1970s she was a senior research associate at Cornell. She rose to the rank of University Professor at the New York University (NYU) despite holding no advanced degrees.

Her work was widely cited and she received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984,[3] the John Desmond Bernal Prize of the Society for the Social Studies of Science in 1988, the John McGovern Award of the American Medical Writers Association in 1999, and election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993. She was on editorial boards for journals in sociology, science studies, law, history and public health. She participated as an advisor or consultant on projects in the United States, France, Canada, Israel and Britain, on questions raised by risk assessment, privacy, science and the media, Huntington's disease, gene enhancement and data ownership.

Science studies[edit]

Her earliest work in science studies, on a proposed nuclear power plant, exemplified her method. In Nuclear Power and its Critics: The Cayuga Lake Controversy, 1971, Nelkin analyzed the roles of technical experts and technical assessments in a dispute about a proposed nuclear plant. She tracked the perspectives of environmentalists, scientists at Cornell, utility spokesmen, electric power industry executives, New York State Department of Health officials and Ithaca residents. Nelkin suggested that by watching how technical experts engaged in public debate, one could gain insight into the values and practices of the scientific community. The strains expressed in this particular controversy reflected “not so much substantive disagreement as concern with the mode of presentation of scientific data, the appropriate behavior of scientists with respect to public issues, and the effect of publicity on the scientific dimensions of the problem,” Nelkin wrote (p. 43). Some scientists involved felt that taking a position threatened the credibility of scientists; others thought that taking a firm position was necessary. Her development of controversy studies became a productive long-term research program. She later looked at the controversy over Logan Airport, which engaged with technical interpretations of sound pollution, at the creationism controversy, at interpretations of atomic power in France and Germany, at the controversy at MIT over the Instrumentation Lab, and at many other public issues relating to technical knowledge, its application and its management.

Creation Science[edit]

In the course of her work on creation science, she became an expert in a highly contentious legal setting. She testified in the Arkansas creationism trial, and her work provoked a wide public response. In her 1982 book, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools, she noted that the creationists represented themselves as scientists (it was “creation science” at the time; it is now “intelligent design”) yet their ideas challenged the norms of science directly. In the creationism debate, science and religion proved to be intertwined in paradoxical ways, and their arguments shared some important qualities. Indeed, the general tone and structure of the debates would be recognizable to people across a broad political spectrum: The claim of technical neutrality, the discomfort of those most directly affected, the conflicting invocation of facts and details to support either side, the appeal to the press and the public, and to the legal system and legislature. Perhaps unique in its overt fusion of religion and science, the creationism controversy was nonetheless typical in its expression of tensions about local control, public participation in the assessment of science and technology, and the increasingly disputed role of expertise in public policy. “Biologists and creationists alike claim the other bases its beliefs on faith; each group argues with passion for its own dispassionate objectivity; and each bemoans the moral, political and legal implications of the alternative ideology,” she wrote.

Science and the press[edit]

Nelkin’s work on the press and public culture followed naturally from this interest in controversy. Journalists are active players in controversies surrounding science, and Nelkin became interested in how press coverage was shaped not only by scientific pronouncements but also by the internal culture of journalism, which has its own norms and practices. These practices encouraged certain kinds of reporting, for example an emphasis on breakthroughs, the lionization of great personalities, and even a resentful reaction to technological failure, particularly when press coverage of the technology involved had been so enthusiastic. In Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, she examined the selection pressures shaping coverage showing that journalists use images that express value judgments, for example about AIDS or toxic dumps, thus placing facts in an environment that implies possible solutions. The culturally loaded stories that journalists used to explain science, she suggested, reflected the norms of science journalism, a field that developed after 1945, partly in response to the importance of science and technology during the war. The notion of “facts over values” that shaped science also shaped journalism, and journalists were as invested in the sanctity of “objectivity” as any neophyte physics graduate student. Science, with its assumed reverence for facts, was therefore the model for proper journalism, and the reverence for facts “served the same purpose for journalists as it did for scientists, helping both professions maintain autonomy and independence from public control.” (87) Objectivity, of course, in journalism, generally meant adoring coverage of science and technology in terms of “cosmic breakthroughs” and “revolutionary developments.”


In her later work, over the last 14 years of her life, Nelkin focused on the cultures of biomedicine. Her 1989 book with the law and medicine scholar Lawrence Tancredi, Dangerous Diagnostics: The Social Power of Biological Information was a turning point in her intellectual trajectory. She was still interested in controversies, but she was now involved in generating them, rather than just analyzing them. Dangerous Diagnostics was intended to provoke debate about issues that had not attracted much public attention. She was becoming a much more activist scholar, someone who would take on a technological innovation widely viewed in glowing terms and suggest some of the issues that it raised. She still wrote about controversial subjects at times—her work on AIDS, for example —but her intent seems to have shifted. She was moving “inside,” not inside the science but inside the power networks, and she was becoming an independent voice in the critique of science and a major player in science policy and public assessments of technology. This was increasingly reflected in her service on policy boards and assessment panels in the United States and elsewhere.

Dangerous Diagnostics was a breakthrough book in other ways as well. It explored the contemporary social control purposes of medical testing, showing how new imaging and diagnostic tests extended institutional power from the arenas of work or education, into the personal lives of clients, patients, students and employees. Looking at predictive tests across a wide range of medical specialties, Nelkin and Tancredi suggested that the increasing preoccupation with testing in American society reflected intersecting tendencies of actuarial thinking and biological reductionism. Actuarial thinking encourages organizations and institutions to seek information about those they manage or hire; biological reductionism moves problems into the neutral realm of science in ways that can make values and assumptions disappear. By looking at how disciplinary norms and values intersected with diagnostic test results and institutional priorities, Nelkin and Tancredi provided a brilliant analysis that remains extremely relevant and important.


Her work on DNA in American popular culture was a nod to her early work on science and the press, but again, like the book with Tancredi, it identified an issue that was not generally on the map, and elucidated problems with public imagery that had not been noticed or emphasized by others. The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon, co-written with the historian of science Susan Lindee, became a widely used teaching text. It brought together approaches from media studies, science studies, and sociology to consider how popular images of the gene affected legal decisions, educational practices, and social experiences of identity and relationships. Like her last two book collaborations, with Lori Andrews (The Body Bazaar) and Suzanne Anker (The Molecular Gaze), it was a book about the social impact of biology with a strong policy orientation.

Selected publications[edit]

  • On the Season: Aspects of the Migrant Labor System (1970). New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.
  • The University and Military Research: Moral Politics at MIT (1972). Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-0711-7
  • Jetport: The Boston Airport Controversy (1975). Transaction Books. ISBN 0-87855-591-9
  • Science Textbook Controversies and the Politics of Equal Time (1977). MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-64017-1
  • The Atom Besieged: Extra-Parliamentary Dissent in France and Germany (with Michael Pollak; 1981). MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-64021-X
  • The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools (1982). New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-8070-3155-0
  • Workers at Risk: Voices from the workplace (with M.S. Brown; 1984). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-57128-9
  • The Language of Risk: Conflicting Perspectives in Occupational Health (1985). SAGE Publications. ISBN 0-8039-2467-4
  • Selling Science: How the press covers science and technology (1987). W.H., Freeman Press. Translated into Japanese and Spanish. ISBN 0-7167-2595-9
  • Dangerous Diagnostics (1989). New York: Basic. ISBN 0-226-57129-7
  • A Disease of Society: The Cultural Response to AIDS (with D. Willis, eds.; 1991). Cambridge U. Press. ISBN 0-521-40743-5
  • The Animal Rights Crusade (with James M. Jasper; 1991). Free Press. ISBN 0-02-916195-9
  • The Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology (2001). Age Crown Books. Translated into Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian. ISBN 0-609-60540-2
  • The Molecular Gaze (with Suzanne Anker; 2003). Cold Spring Harbor Press. ISBN 0-87969-697-4


  1. ^ a b Nagourney, Eric (June 2, 2003). "Dorothy Nelkin, 69, Expert On Science and Society, Dies". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2007-03-11. Retrieved 2006-11-06.
  2. ^ "Advisory Council". National Center for Science Education. Archived from the original on 2013-08-10. Retrieved 2018-10-30.
  3. ^ "292 receive fellowships from Guggenheim fund". The New York Times (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, New York. April 10, 1983. p. A.48.

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